NJ police departments employing surplus military equipment
Many police departments across New Jersey are taking advantage of a federal program that allows them to get surplus vehicles, weapons and other equipment from the U.S. military.
In May, President Barack Obama modified the program, stipulating local police could not receive bayonets, grenade launchers, .50-caliber machine guns and certain types of armored vehicles, bayonets or camouflage uniforms.
Despite the new restrictions, there's still plenty of equipment for police departments to choose from.
One New Jersey police expert said high-powered vehicles that can get through difficult terrain has been especially helpful to municipalities.
"Those are the types of vehicles that there's no way a municipality could budget for and maintain. A lot of departments cannot afford to get or purchase that equipment on their own. They're reliant on the availability of the decommissioned surplus equipment," said Nils Bergquist, chairman of the Legislative and Public Policy Committee of the New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police. Bergquist also serves as chief of the Brick Township Police Department.
The president's recent ban on certain miltiary-style equipment won't impact the majority of the police departments in New Jersey, according to Bergquist.
The issue of police militarization rose to prominence in 2014 after a white police officer in Ferguson fatally shot unarmed black 18-year-old Michael Brown, sparking protests. Critics questioned why police in full body armor with armored trucks responded to dispel demonstrators, and Obama seemed to sympathize when ordering a review of the programs that provide the equipment. "There is a big difference between our military and our local law enforcement and we don't want those lines blurred," Obama said last August.
Bergquist said he understands the concern the public may have with police employing military-grade weapons, but that the equipment, especially firearms, are used much in the same way that everyday police equipment is used. "They're only going to be used the same time as any other firearm would be used - that's in cases where deadly force would be warranted."
Bergquist said it is up to police departments to make sure the public is educated on why the equipment is necessary.
"Public perception of what we do and how we do it is an important concern and it always is an important concern. It's incumbent on that department to make sure that they reach out to the community and explain to them the need for the equipment, the purpose of the equipment and how it will be used," Bergquist said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.